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LEFT OF CENTRE: Skimmers go hi-tech

Josh Delaney

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Criminals might have their eyes on your bank card.
In 2011, roughly 11.6 million adults – one out of every 20 – in the United States were victims of identity theft. In the last few years, skimmers – criminals who use fake card swipe machines to steal card information –  have stolen millions from unsuspecting consumers at gas pumps and ATMs alike.
It’s part of an identity theft industry that cost consumers, businesses and banks billions in 2011.
Tow thirds per cent of identity thefts involved existing credit or debit card accounts.
But boiling the numbers down to the specific number of skimming crimes has been difficult for law enforcement and researchers alike.
Authorities say skimming crews use highly sophisticated scanners that are by and large undetectable by consumers.
They often are molded plastic or metal card reader simulators placed over the bank’s equipment, and in many cases criminals use the same paint banks use, in order to blend their devices into the ATM.
According to authorities, criminals employ a pinhole camera on or near the ATM to capture a customer’s personal identification number.
The equipment can be installed in the time it takes to withdraw cash or fill up a gas tank.
A card skimmer could be in line behind you. Skimming equipment can be installed with double-sided tape and later removed by crooks who then download the information and encode it on to blank bank cards, according to the FBI.
Oil companies and banks are working to prevent skimming.
Shell was the first major oil company to bring tamper-evident labels to the market at the pump and is working with wholesalers to offer incentives for new locks on pump dispensers in targeted markets.
But criminals are also upgrading their technology.
In 2011, Gordon M. Snow, then the assistant director of the FBI’s cyber division, told the United States House Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit that Bluetooth-enabled wireless skimmers had been found at some gas pumps. Wireless technology allows thieves to instantly download information from the skimmers while criminals can also make equipment to mimic the security features on ATM hardware.
In other words, as banks and oil companies are developing anti-skimming equipment, criminals are working just as hard to stay ahead. Some encode stolen numbers onto gift cards, which don’t draw suspicion from merchants.
And equipment makers are brazen when it comes to selling their black market technology. Many of them advertise on the Internet.
A man who identifies himself as “Stean Cortez” runs a website that says on its home page: “ATM skimmers for sale!”
Under a page titled “Proof of our work”, Cortez lists the names, addresses and card information of more than a dozen victims in the United States.
The website touts one skimming machine as capable of storing up to 2 000 card swipes. The skimmer is password-protected and is advertised as good “for people who work with partners they may not trust”.
It also comes with an instruction manual. Asked by email how long it takes to install the skimming equipment, Cortez replied, “Hell (sic) it take about 1-2 minutes.”
Asked which ATMs the skimmers work best on, he replied, “It works on any banks who use Wincor Nixdorf, NCR or Diebold atm’s (sic).”
• Josh Delaney writes for the San Bernardino County Sun.